Tuesday dawned with another deeply delusional attempt to chronicle this elusive yet pervasive species known as the millennial, but just as the media slur "hipster" lost all meaning through overuse, we're starting to notice that no one knows what millennial means.
Employed by everyone and embraced by no one, millennial now needs its own dictionary. Are you a Baby Boomer with a take on millennials fit for a legacy publication? We are here to serve. Pick and choose your own adventure in generational stereotypes.
The Lazy-Entitled-No-Good-Very-Bad-Brats Definition
Millennial [noun, mil·LEN·ni·al]: A pampered, over-spoiled twenty-something who's overeducated, underemployed, and probably living in his or her parents' basement. Doted on by rich parents haplessly enabling a toxic dearth of motivation, this sloth-like youngster "will ultimately need more subsidies than a dairy farmer."
The broader contours of this definition have been flooding mainstream media for years now, but perhaps no piece has nailed it quite as infuriatingly as a column in Monday's Boston Globe. Painting these unusual breeds as "trophy kids" sulking in matching pajamas, contributor Jennifer Graham goes on to compare millennials to "nesting" mammals, lazing fishermen, and colonial idlers at Jamestown. In a similarly minded condemnation, Joel Stein called millennials "lazy, entitled, selfish, and shallow"—all in the first sentence of his recent Time cover story.
The Confused Retiree Fantasy Definition
Millennial [noun, mil·LEN·ni·al]: A blissful, artistically inclined, happy-go-lucky young person who sleeps late and lives his or her dreams happily unencumbered from the daily stresses of modern success.
Such is the bewildering fantasy put forth in today's New York Times by writer Jim Sollisch, who tells of his son Max's roving, rambling, singer-songwriter existence and muses that he "want[s] to be a millennial" when he retires. "Max gets up when he likes and does what he loves," Sollisch writes. So what if he may not have a viable longterm income or stability?
But for now, here’s the answer I give when people ask me if Max’s career is a success. I say: “It’s off the charts. He’s living the life of a millionaire retiree.”
Sounds pretty good to this millennial! But despite its flattering tone, Sollisch's definition is more similar to the Globe piece than it seems at first glance: it's predicated on the assumption that all millennials are blessed with privileged backgrounds (not so!), unsaddled by the $1.2 trillion student debt crisis (not so!), and somehow mystically unaffected by the near-unprecedented youth unemployment rate (uh...). But that's okay—this definition is a timeless fantasy of youth. And, as Sollisch ruminates on his soon-to-be retired life teaching part-time and traveling the world, he hardly seems to disguise it as anything more.
The Tech-Addled Narcissist Definition
Millennial [noun, mil·LEN·ni·al]: A self-absorbed, tech-savvy twenty-something who spends all day sending selfie Snapchats and updating his or her Tumblr instead of applying for jobs.
This definition can be partly attributed to figures like "celebrity psychologist" Jean M. Twenge, author of Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic, and Fox News contributor Dr. Keith Ablow, who warns that "we are raising a generation of deluded narcissists." Twenge claims her data shows "generational increases in self-esteem, assertiveness, self-importance, narcissism, and high expectations," but her "methods" have been called into question by scientists and writers alike." Her conclusions similarly flooded Joel Stein's Time piece, but, as the Wire's own Elspeth Reeve showed with a look at previous magazine covers, "every every ever generation has been the Me Me Me Generation."
The Money-Obsessed Materialist Definition
Millennial [noun, mil·LEN·ni·al]: A member of Generation Y who is shallowly materialistic, obsessively tied to consumer culture, and lacking in basic work ethic.
A recent articulation of this media fantasy arrived in a March New York Times piece by Annie Lowrey, who points to a Pew survey suggesting millennials define themselves by "clothes" rather than "work ethic" and notes that "millennials have developed a reputation for a certain materialism." But it's more complicated, since, as Lowrey notes, millennials have little money and spend little," despite their immersion in consumer culture." All of which hints rather cautiously at Generation Y's curious relationship with economic capital that's limited by a "post-employment" information economy, a proliferation of "jobs" that pay in prestige rather paychecks, and a record student debt rate. In other words: thousands of millennials are spending tons of money—but they're spending it in ways that are deeply alien to their elders: to pay to work an unpaid internship, for instance, or to afford the college education they got nearly a decade ago.
The Actual Definition
Millennial [noun, mil·LEN·ni·al]: An individual born in the 1980s or 1990s, who subsequently came of age around or shortly after the year 2000.
That's it. Really. No pseudo-sociological observations on millennials' motivation (or purported lack thereof) or indefinite basement-dwelling. No patronizingly ahistorical footnotes about how youngsters were so much more mature when you graduated college. No sunny fantasies about living the millennial dream as an affluent, retired septuagenarian.
Want to know if you're a true millennial? It's easy! Check the date on your birth certificate and leave the newspaper columns on your parents' welcome mat where they belong.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.